By: Isa Goldberg
March 9, 2019: The Fiasco Theater’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, at The Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre reflects on friendship, love, and loyalty. In the program notes, the artistic directors state that in reimaging the musical they drew on their own experience, “what it’s like to be old friends trying to make art together, and how important (and yet fragile) those relationships can sometimes be.”
Since its Broadway premiere in 1981, Merrily has been a problem play for audiences and critics. Perhaps because it’s a story about disillusionment, which is where the play begins. The narrative moves form the present, to the past, revealing how these characters arrived at their destiny.
At the center of it all, is a trio of friends. However, Frank (Ben Steinfeld), a talented and idealistic composer of Broadway musicals tosses off his wife (Jessie Austrian), and his lyricist (Manu Narayan) for Hollywood fame.
In this minimalist production, those relationships come into focus. And the satirical qualities of the musical, about making theater, and the people who create it, move swiftly and deftly to create emotionally affecting characters, along with some amusing caricatures. As Frank, Ben Steinfeld brings a strong voice, and a magnetic personality. We see how the jaded producer emerged, from a brilliant young man, starting with his first Broadway hit.
At its heart, the tension here is between friendship, as the youthful idealists experience it, and the fulfillment of the American Dream, as the then adults try to come to terms with it. But, like his tragic counterpart, Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman), Frank’s dream of prosperity and upward mobility become his own undoing. He becomes too out of touch with reality.
Jessie Austrian’s Mary morphs from the present to the past, by throwing off layers of wardrobe. Seeing her first as the alcoholic theater critic, with a poisonous pen, she looks like a woman who grew fat from sitting, drinking, and indulging herself, at the expense of others, of course. As we move back in time however, we meet her as the beautiful young wife Frank will later abandon.
And as his Broadway lyricist, and business partner, Charley, Manu Narayan is an earnest actor, portraying in a relaxed and steady manner, the humanist who tries to guide Frank more wisely. It’s a confident performance. He has a beautiful voice, too!
With a small cast of six actors who sing, the show is charming, and colorful. Playing a few different roles, Paul L. Coffey breezes through a range of iconic theater types, with humor.
Director Noah Brody gets the pacing; the musical breezes by in 90 minutes. Derek McLane’s overcrowded backstage with shelves of bric-a-brac, hanging chandeliers, along with folding tables and chairs, serve a multitude of settings. But most importantly, the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim remain among his finest, including the anthemic Our Time, and the bitter torch song, Not A Day Goes By.
Merrily We Roll Along ***1/2
Fiasco Theater/Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater
111 W. 46th St., NYC.
Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30om, Thu—Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time: one hour and 40 mins. with no intermission.
$99—$149. (212) 719-1300. www.roundaboutheatre.org.
February 19- April 9 2019.
Photography: Joan Marcus